When issues becomes hotly politicized, such as GMO’s (“Frankenfood“), health care (“death panels“), and yes, climate science (“hoax“), the extremes dominate the public dialogue. When this happens, it is virtually impossible to have a grown-up conversation about these issues in the public sphere.
The press, following the scent of controversy and conflict, ends up in a funhouse, where it has to distinguish between various shades of distortion. Reporters on the climate change beat not only navigate this funhouse but also follow the science and translate its meaning. But that, too, is often turned into sensationalist gruel or something unrecognizable to scientists. Either way, the public is not served well. A 2009 Popular Mechanics article, examining media reaction to five climate studies, observed:
A leading climate scientist argues that overbroad claims by some researchers–coupled with overblown reporting in the media–can undermine the public’s understanding of climate issues. Gavin Schmidt, a NASA climate modeler, author and PM [Popular Mechanics] editorial advisor, concurs with the consensusview that the planet’s temperature is rising due largely to human activity. But, he says, many news stories prematurely attribute local or regional phenomena to climate change. This can lead to the dissemination of vague, out-of-context or flat-wrong information to the public.
“People think that if there’s a trend, it has to be connected to this bigger trend,” he says. “You often get this kind of jumping the gun.” Sometimes researchers are citing a potential connection to global warming to get noticed, he says, and sometimes journalists are focusing on that connection to make the story more compelling. “There’s a bit of a backlash amid people who have a brain,” says Schmidt. “It’s akin to [the media's reporting on] medical studies. It adds to people’s confusion.”
In an ideal world, Real Climate (where Schmidt is a contributor) would have been a neutral arbiter of the science. Or at least be perceived as one by all sides. Of course, what website, magazine, or institution is perceived by all sides as unbiased?
The problem isn’t that we don’t live in an ideal world but that the civic space we inhabit has become so polluted with personal animosity, vitriol, and disrespect. The climate arena is merely an extension of this depraved landscape, where arguments are made by hyperbole and ad hominem. Opposing sides try to tear the other down, by casting aspersions on individual reputations and motives. In the climate debate, few can claim to be innocent, even those who would have liked nothing better than to stick to science or policy. Indeed, as I wrote here,
many prefer a smashmouth style of fighting. That means every provocation is taken up, every quote is potential fodder, every action is open to being exploited for partisan advantage.
This corrosive dynamic is by now well established.
All Models Are Wrong
The title is pure genius, because just below it appears this subhead:
..but some are useful. A grown-up discussion about how to quantify uncertainties in modelling climate change and its impacts, past and future.
A grown-up discussion about climate science. What a quaint idea.
Before launching her blog, Edwards got some pushback on her chosen name, with one well-known scientist insistent that it would be deliberately misinterpreted and misused by opponents of climate science. She discusses this in her inaugral post:
I was surprised that a senior academic tried to persuade me, fairly forcefully, not to use the name.
As Tina Turner in Mad Max 3 said, Welcome to the Thunderdome!
So it looks like the climate debate is degenerating to new lows. Make no mistake: This is a win for the Marc Moranos. Of course, some on the other side seem to relish getting into the mud with him. Perhaps they don’t realize that that is what he wants to happen.
Oh well, the “street fight” is definitely on, as I discuss here at the Yale Forum on Climate Change & the Media.
Some stuff that caught my eye this week:
Bryan Walsh at Time attempts to sort through the frack-off at Cornell.
Biotechnology to the rescue? Shhh, don’t tell the anti-GMO crowd about this one.
Steve Silberman tweets:
Between them, Gingrich and Limbaugh have had 7 marriages. And they want to abolish my one.
Did you know Israel was at war with itself?
An evangelical climate scientist (much in the news lately) explains what it will take for conservative evangelicals to really get on board with the climate concerned community:
Environmental issues and climate change carry a lot of baggage in evangelical circles. If you can dissociate the issue from Al Gore, if you can dissociate the issue from the Democratic Party, if you can dissociate it from hugging trees, from pro-choice, from evolution vs. creation, if you can strip away all of those ties and only talk about the issue of taking care of the planet God gave us and loving our neighbor as ourself, then there is hardly anyone who will not accept that message. It’s not about theology, it’s about baggage.
What are your complaints about science journalism? Who, in particular, doing you think is doing a really good job or a really crappy job?
We learn that Chris Mooney, author of The Republican War on Science, can envision himself being a Republican in the Make Love-Not War era. Maybe he would have penned a book called The Democratic Brain on Acid.
Richard Betts wants to widen the climate conversation. Good luck with that!
Finally, courtesy of Charles C. Mann, I’ve been made aware of this excellent essay by a geographer who looks back at his own famous 20-year old essay and an ensuing body of work by scholars that deflated the “pristine myth.” The humanized landscape theme and some of the authors (and their books) mentioned in the essay have previously been discussed at Collide-a-Scape (see here and here, for example).
Have a nice weekend.
Yesterday, Nature’s online editor set off a mini squall with this Guardian column, titled “Nine ways scientists demonstrate they don’t understand journalism.” The response from the science blogosphere was pretty negative. For some reason, this surprised me–well the darts thrown at the piece by many writers did, anyway.
I kinda got into it a bit on twitter, which was like nibbling at an Oreo cookie. I then thought some deep thoughts and presto, this short riff at the Yale Forum on Climate Change & the Media emerged.
I know everyone has been waiting on pins and needles about the future of this blog. The suspense has been killing me, too. Well, I have good news and bad news.
Let’s start with the latter. Your combined generosity has enabled me to buy some new socks, take my kids to a matinee movie and fill up the family car’s gas tank. The upshot: unless some amazing ad revenue model materializes, or George Soros and the Koch brothers team up to throw money at me, this is a dead blog walking.
Oh, quit your bawling. We’ve had a good run. You’ll be fine. Maybe some old friends will even start talking to me again.
The good news is I won’t totally go away. In fact, I still write a once a week thingamajob at the Yale Forum on Climate Change & the Media, which appears every Tuesday or wed. You can check Colide-a-Scape on those days for the blurb and link. Also, it’s not like I’m going to stop reading, reporting and writing about the subjects that have been a mainstay of this blog. So when my work appears elsewhere, I’ll flog it here.
Lastly, while I explore a few life support options for this blog, I’m going to post a round-up once or twice a week of links that catch my eye. That starts today, just below.
Global warming “has joined abortion and gay marriage as a culture war controversy,” writes conservative WaPo columnist Michael Gerson, as if this were a fresh insight. There’s enough fodder in his piece to piss off all sides and reinforce the theme of Gerson’s column.
On a similar note, Judith Curry finds that “the extreme polarization of the public debate on climate change seems very difficult to change.” Hmm, ya think? Curry says she is trying to build a “community for floaters, and diminish the basis for inflexibles and liars.” What is a floater? Someone who floats away from being inflexible and deceitful or between those two types? In any case, she seems to have realized that her blog, Climate Etc., “is fighting an uphill battle.”
The National Center for Science Education announces the launch of a new initiative “aimed at defending the teaching of climate change.” This one will be interesting to watch. The Center made a name for itself by defending the teaching of evolution. See this LA Times story for more background.
Meanwhile, in the Guardian, University of Colorado media scholar Max Boycoff says that, beyond all this culture war stuff,
the “climate problem” suffers from a more powerful and enduring force: economic stagnation.
On the wonky front, a scholar considers the pros and cons of climate change being taken up the UN security council.
Anthropologist John Hawks tweeted that he was
Trying to figure out why climate change brings the Doomsday Clock closer to midnight than the Cuban Missile Crisis.
This proposal comes from an international team of researchers “” in climate modeling, atmospheric chemistry, economics, agriculture and public health “” who started off with a question that borders on heresy in some green circles: Could something be done about global warming besides forcing everyone around the world to use less fossil fuel?
As for what is being proposed, Tierney summarizes:
researchers determined the 14 most effective measures for reducing climate change, like encouraging a switch to cleaner diesel engines and cookstoves, building more efficient kilns and coke ovens, capturing methane at landfills and oil wells, and reducing methane emissions from rice paddies by draining them more often.
Barrie Pittock at The Conservation explains why a better framework for the climate debate would be risk-based:
Policy is value-laden, while science can only tease out the possibilities and probabilities. Some have now agreed we need to avoid a global average warming of more than 2°C. But this “limit” is uncertain and value-laden. What is “dangerous” to someone living near the coast in Vanuatu may be quite different from what someone in Russia or inland Australia might consider dangerous. Many of us think a 2°C limit may not be strict enough to avoid a dangerous degree of climate change. But that is a value judegment made under uncertainty.
Only time will tell what is an acceptable risk and to whom.
At the local level in Florida, comprehensive planning for climate change is underway. Michael Lemonick at Yale Environment 360 has the details. Shocker alert: Republicans and Democrats in the Sunshine state are working together on these regional climate initiatives.
The oil & gas industry must have perceived some tipping point over fracking, since a new law (in Texas, of all places) is about go into effect, forcing drillers to “disclose many of the chemicals that they inject into the Earth,” writes Steve leVine over at Foreign Policy.
CNN’s Fareed Zakaria looks at some “striking numbers” that convince him why oil prices will remain high for the foreseeable future.
India has a worsening energy crisis, resulting from years of “policy gridlock,” according to The Times of India, which reports:
A shortage of coal and gas and uncertainty over supply have thrown the business plans of the [power] generators into disarray and made lenders reluctant to lend, delaying projects.
When I was in high school I had a bunch of money-earning jobs. I raked yards in the Fall (leaf bags galore!), shoveled driveways in the winter, and delivered newspapers year-round. (I really hated those thick Sunday papers back then.) This meant I had cash on hand to feed my record-buying habit and enough to spare for other typical American teenager indulgences. The important thing to keep in mind here is that people paid me to rake the leaves off their lawns, shovel snow from their driveways, and deliver their newspapers everyday.
I had one more gig as a 16-year old: I worked as a sportswriter for my town newspaper. You might be surprised to learn that I was also financially rewarded (per article) for this work. My first bylines were thrilling, but being edited and paid to cover high school sports made it feel like I had joined the ranks of professional journalism. Looking back, I’m sure I would have done it for nothing. I didn’t think the editor would hire me, much less pay me. But he did both. And in doing so, he served as my first mentor and instilled in me this crazy idea that writers get paid for their output. Those were the pre-internet days.
Today, things aren’t so cut and dry. Professional writers compete with hobbyists and experts from other fields in a digital media landscape that is flush with content. On the plus side, this has leveled the playing field and created opportunity for a multitude of voices to be heard. The downside is that this surplus quantity has diluted quality and created separate editorial standards for the print and online product at newspapers and magazines.
The problem with this is that most readers no longer distinguish between what is online and in print, or between an article that was professionally vetted and that which was thrown online with minimal scrutiny. Some publications, it seems, don’t bother to make these distinctions clear.
Consider, for example, The Atlantic, an influential thought leader and prestige publication in the United States. I challenge anyone to scroll around its website and be able to distinguish between the professionally vetted articles (those that were fact-checked and underwent numerous edits and revisions) and those that received glancing attention.
Why is this important? Look at the article The Atlantic published online earlier this week, which was widely read and shared. It also contained many significant errors, which the writer (to his credit) owned up to after knowledgeable critics tore it apart. (I have discussed the article here, here, and here.) If you look at the editor’s note at the article, acknowledging its inaccuracies, you’ll see the piece is now identified as the author’s “most recent Flash in the Pan column, which is syndicated by a number of newspapers and magazine websites.” That would be a food column.
However, in the article’s initial incarnation, The Atlantic did not make this clear. It’s fair to assume that many readers thought the piece, because it was stamped with The Atlantic’s prestigious imprimatur, had passed the high editorial standards of the magazine. That gives the article a gravitas it didn’t deserve.
Now there’s a related, equally troublesome issue that I foreshadowed at the beginning of this post: the matter of financial compensation. It is not for me to say whether the author of that particular Atlantic article was paid or not by the magazine. That is his business, as he has made clear to me. But it is my impression that a good many of the online-only contributors do not get paid. I’m ready to stand corrected (in fact, I’d love it if I was). So if articles that cost nothing are routinely posted online by The Atlantic, how much time do you think editors are spending with the copy? Not much, I’m guessing.
The issue of writers giving away their copy for free is a sore subject for many of us who are accustomed to being paid for our writing. The Huffington post model has been widely (and rightfully) deplored, but it is also being increasingly emulated in many precincts. Personally, I’ve alway been paid for blog posts or online articles that have appeared elsewhere. Recently, I reached out to Barry Estabrook, a writer I used to work with (and pay) regularly when I was an editor at Audubon magazine in the 2000s, after I noticed that he contributed to various online venues, including The Atlantic. Last year, Estabrook published a book called Tomatoland. I asked him straight out if he was getting paid for his online pieces at The Atlantic and other sites. Via email, he responded:
I have a policy of not writing anything (other than direct promotion for Tomatoland) for free, a policy I would perhaps waive if the editors and executives at these websites were also working for free.
The issue of science bloggers, I should hasten to add, is a different kettle of fish. I’m bothered by journalists and science writers who give away their talents at those network/group blog sites. That said, I’m aware that these outlets, with their free back-end support and brand name perches, offer intangibles that can’t be measured in a bi-weekly paycheck. Those who latch on to such places get a seat at the grown-ups table and can make themselves heard over the din. If they do it well enough, that might even translate into gainfully employed work from other grown-ups that are willing to pay. Additionally, if you have a book or some other pet project to hawk, then a bloghorn is virtually a must. So I get the value of free labor under those circumstances.
But let’s not kid ourselves, either. All told, the proliferation of content farms in media and the expectation that the content be cost-free, is not without its costs to the reputation of journalism and the livelihoods of its professionals.
UPDATE: Ed Yong, via twitter, says it’s “worth noting that all sci-blog networks assoc’d w/ media brands do pay. Some pittance, others well.”
If the writer of a magazine story admits to significant errors in his piece, shouldn’t the publication then acknowledge this with an editor’s note, providing corrections?
used this study as a springboard to raise concerns about GMO foods.
Before I delve into the new twists, here’s the backstory from Christie Wilcox at her Scientific American blog:
Recently, food columnist Ari Levaux wrote what can only be described as a completely unscientific article in The Atlantic claiming that microRNAs (miRNAs) are a “very real danger of GMOs.” I won’t go point by point through the horrendous inaccuracies in his piece, as Emily Willingham has more than hacked them to bits.
In the comments thread of Wilcox’s post, LeVaux defends himself while also admitting:
I acknowledge there were some significant scientific errors in my Atlantic piece, and my argument could have been stronger. With a lot of help from great thinkers, some of whom didn’t agree with me, my rewrite posted yesterday on Alternet.
Interestingly, the rewrite at Alternet does not mention that it’s been adapted from an error-riddled article at The Atlantic. Okay, maybe the Alternet editors don’t want to mention the part about the author’s original inaccuracies, but I’m surprised there is no acknowledgment of the piece being adapted from something LeVaux published earlier in the week at The Atlantic.
Meanwhile, if you revisit the original piece at The Atlantic, you’ll notice this below the subhead:
Update 1/12: AlterNet has posted Ari LeVaux’s expanded and updated version of this column.
That’s it! No acknowledgment that the Atlantic article contains “significant scientific errors,” as the author himself admits. The magazine’s editors, in whatever language they deem appropriate, should acknowledge in their update what the author himself acknowledges. The Atlantic story will have a long shelf life online and new readers coming to it in the future should be made aware of its errors.
Besides, isn’t this all part of the normal journalistic process when major mistakes are found in a newspaper or magazine story?
UPDATE: Several hours after publishing my post, The Atlantic did exactly what I suggested they should do: acknowledge the errors in the article. Here is the revised editors note:
Update 1/12: Thanks to science and biology bloggers, Christie Wilcox and Emily Willingham at the Scientific American blog network and The Biology Files, respectively, we’ve learned of the scientific errors made in Ari LeVaux’s most recent Flash in the Pan column, which is syndicated by a number of newspapers and magazine websites. This column has been expanded and updated, with LeVaux discussing specific changes in the comments. We regret the errors.
One of the unfortunate consequences of the hyperbolic, circumscribed climate change discourse (It’s all hoax, No it’s not!) is that we don’t pay enough attention to the climate change that did happen in prehistory, specifically the mega-droughts that combined with other factors to cripple ancient empires.
These are complicated stories that are still being puzzled out by scientists, as I discuss in this longish piece at the Yale Forum on Climate Change & the Media. But I think these stories and the evidence of prehistoric drought are becoming clear enough for us to draw lessons from. Have a read and let me know over there what you think.
Yesterday, I called attention to a deeply flawed article published online by The Atlantic, that used this study as a springboard to raise concerns about GMO foods. Biotechnology, like climate science, is prone to distortion by those who feel passionate about it. The debate on GMO’s and climate change is most heated and misrepresented on blogs where the hosts have staked out a strongly-held position. These sites are the intellectual equivalent of funhouse mirrors, where reality gets absurdly (and often comically) twisted. But when a highly reputable magazine like The Atlantic puts up a muddled piece headlined “The Very Real Danger of Genetically Modified Foods,” you have to wonder if, as Charlie Petit puts it, the magazine is descending “into the hurry-up-and-shock-me world of online journalism.”
Fortunately, there is a countervailing force in the blogosphere, like Charlie’s perch at the Knight Science Journalism Tracker, and those of independent blogs, such as The Biology Files, where a detailed critique of the The Atlantic article was posted by Emily Willingham. That said, I agree with this commenter at the Atlantic site, who wrote:
If a journalist doesn’t have expertise in a subject they write about, it’s reasonable to expect that they, or their editor, will run the piece past someone who is knowledgeable about the field, especially when the article relates to human health.